By Ashleigh Fields,
AFRO Assistant Editor,
Along the beaten path that lays on the stretch of land between two exits off Route 113 lives one family’s long-lasting legacy of service. The road measures at two miles and carries the namesake of Fannie Birckhead. A local leader who cultivated the side plot of greenery that runs along the highway, for over 30 years before passing on the tradition to her eldest daughter, Maj. Gen. Janeen Birckhead.
Throughout years of triumph and turmoil the family unit of four created core memories picking up trash along the interstate that caresses the small community off the eastern shore known as Snow Hill. A town that Fannie Birkhead pioneered as interim mayor, six term council member and judge for Worcester County Orphans’ Court. She was the first African American to be elected to any countywide office in Worcester County.
“I grew up having a mother who was really forward thinking and a leader in her own right. She was someone who really believed that representation matters,” Maj. Gen. Birckhead shared in reference to her mother. “She was decisive and unafraid.”
This unconventional style of leadership influenced the life and career that spearheaded Maj. Gen. Birckhead’s journey to becoming the only Black woman currently leading a state military, a high honor and accomplishment that her mother did not live to see. Fannie Birckhead passed just a year shy of her eldest daughter’s selection as adjutant general by Maryland Gov. Wes Moore.
“If there’s any solace, it’s that she was firm in her knowledge that I was well on my way to do other things,” said Maj. Gen. Birckhead. “I’m sure that made her feel good that she had really guided me to a place where the future was certainly bright for me. And I can’t love her enough for that.”
The two had started preparation for this role together thirty years prior as they poured over college applications to the country’s top institutions. Hampton University in Virginia proved to be the best fit for a prominent entry to the military. For four years, Gen. Birckhead was educated as a student in the Pirate Battalion ROTC program before gaining a master’s in management from the University of Maryland. She then went on to earn a degree in strategic studies from the United States Army War College.
“I was there for three Commandant’s. General Hill was about execution. General Kem left me with a decisive and precise vision. General Maranian came in and added a direction to that strategy and caring for people,” said Maj. Gen. Birckhead. “And now I’m going to pass that on, in my own way and my own style, while stepping up as a leader.”
This training reared her to take on historic roles for the country including commander of the Maryland Army National Guard and was dual-hatted as the deputy commandant for reserve affairs at the U.S. Army War. Through the National Guard’s State Partnership Program she worked regularly in foreign relations with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Estonia. Two positions she maintained simultaneously for over three years before ascending to adjutant general.
“This position is such an important position in our defense of the country, defense of our homeland and defense of our communities. I have been fortunate enough to see it up close and personal,” said Maj. Gen. Birckhead. “As I reflect on my journey to this position, the person who was very instrumental in seeing me get here was a former Adjutant General James Fretterd. It was through being his aide when I came over to the National Guard that I was able to get to see the Maryland National Guard, see what it means to be an Adjutant General, some of the things that the National Guard performs and see a leader at that level.”
She often pays homage to leaders who came before her like General Linda Singh, the first woman and first African-American person to take up the role of 29th adjutant general.
“I think representation matters. I’m representing the National Guard. But I’m also representing soldiers who look like me. I am competent. I am representing a soldier who has an opinion and who has knowledge and is prepared to sit at the table and represent at that level,” said Maj. Gen. Birckhead. “I think it’s important that I am absolutely solidifying in their mind, she’s a leader, she’s a strategic thinker, she’s a policymaker. She’s a decision maker, she’s decisive. She mentors and all of those things.”
This innovative attitude is one that General Birckhead brings to every entity she joins. Those who have worked alongside can attest to the level of dedication she brings to a team environment.
“I’ve known her most of my career and she is consistent, thoughtful, strategically patient and knows when to assume prudent risk. By far, she is the best leader I have ever served with,” said Col. Andrew Collins, commander of the Maryland Army National Guard.
As a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Gen. Birckhead leads as the chairperson of the emergency response team and is still an active Snow Hill community.
“Janeen serves as an example of someone who comes from humble beginnings, who allows other young people to see what they can accomplish through hard work and perseverance,” said Kimberly Purvis, president of the Princess Anne Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. “She takes the things that she has achieved and shares those with others. The thing that I’m most impressed with is her servant leadership. Even though General Birkhead is a person who has achieved the level of success that she has, she still continues to be not only a great leader, but a great parent and a great friend.”
Purvis went on to describe the caring attributes that Maj. Gen. Birckhead has embedded in her children.
“Both of her son and daughter attended Snow Hill High School where I was principal. They were my students and General Birckhead’s has an influence on them as leaders, but also as volunteers. One of the things that I have always been impressed with is the fact that her children serve. And it’s because her mother taught her to serve,” Purvis told the AFRO. “One of the first things I noticed when I came to Snow Hill as the principal was the Birckhead highway through Adopt a Highway. This highway adoption was established by her mom Ms. Fannie Birkhead which she passed on to Janeen and they keep that highway clean. Her two children both do the same thing. It’s like the service has just gone down through the years. It is a legacy of service.”
There are many residents within the town who resonate with the family’s compassionate character.
] has not left her community. She’s right here in the community and her kids went to a school in Snow Hill, the same school she attended,” said family friend and county commissioner Diana Purnell who served alongside her mother Fannie. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to show our young kids whether male or female that they can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. Her mother instilled that in her at a very young age. I think General Birckhead embodies a lot of her mother. You’ll see the young Ms. Fannie in Janeen.”
As General Birckhead continues her extensive career in the National Guard, she uses her mother’s parting words as a guiding light.
“I have learned that there is no well-cut path to the future; so develop a forward-looking approach,” said Fannie Birckhead, according to a motto printed in her obituary. “This will enable a sense of direction and concern that allows one to address issues that affect all people. Strive daily to maintain the integrity, competence and honesty that is needed when one seeks to improve their life as well as the lives of others.”